Category Archives: parents

Community Comment 11/8

Community comments I hope to deliver at tonight’s school board meeting:

I am here to speak about the science curriculum review recommendations that news coverage indicates you will be asked to approve at the next regular board meeting.

Tonight, I urge the board not to take action to adopt science curriculum recommendations at the next board meeting.

Here’s why: the science curriculum review proposals are not a straightforward textbook adoption that would be easy for us all to understand. Instead, due to the adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards, the proposals involve significant changes to the district science curriculum. Unfortunately, not enough information has been provided to the community for us to assess how well the proposals will meet the full range of science programming needs of our secondary students.

Fortunately, the Next Generation Science Standards do not have to be implemented until the 2018-19 school year, so there doesn’t seem to be any reason the board–and the community–can’t hear a detailed presentation from the administration at the next board meeting about the proposal to implement the Next Generation Science Standards in the Iowa City Schools, with the board delaying action until the community has an opportunity to provide feedback about the proposal.

The state sets the standards, but we have options about how we, as a district, organize those standards into courses. And choices, also, to make about instructional methods and materials to be used in these courses.

Members of the community have questions about which options are really on the table with this proposal and whether the proposed options are really the best ones for the kids of this district. Questions about proposed course sequences and course syllabi. About whether there will be separate honors course offerings and how decisions will be made about which students get access to accelerated course work. And questions about textbooks and other instructional materials. Very little information, if any, has been provided to the community to answer these questions.

So, please, hear the administration’s presentation, then take at least a few weeks to allow the community to weigh in on the plan before authorizing the administration to move forward with it.

Thank you.


More Questions Than Answers

Just a few quick words about the science curriculum review report presentation at tonight’s board meeting.

Diane Schumacher, Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Testing, said tonight that course changes should alleviate concerns of parents about the science curriculum and that there is a science course flowchart that will be presented at an upcoming meeting.

She also said that the Next Generation Science Standards require earth and space science course work (true–see the high school earth and space science standards by Disciplinary Core Idea here, here, and here). Schumacher also stated that administrators believe it will take a full year to teach all 19 earth and space science performance expectations. So, the idea would be to rework the current Foundations of Science III course into an earth and space science course.

Contrary to the report recommendation that all 9th graders be required to take the course, without exception, Schumacher suggested that 8th graders might be permitted to take the course, subject to the usual gate keeping used for placement in accelerated math courses (test scores, teacher recommendations).

Here’s where things are a bit confusing. I took this as a suggestion to shift the doubled up science course problem from 9th grade to 8th grade. Here’s why: the Next Generation Science Standards have middle school standards grouped by grade band (6-8) but when the State Board of Education adopted the standards as the Iowa Science Standards, they adopted them as grade level specific standards* as presented in the Science Standards Review Team Report. So, if 8th grade students have to cover both the 25 8th grade performance expectations and a full year of 9th grade earth and space science performance expectations, how do they manage without taking two science courses in 8th grade? (With the fall back option of taking two science courses in 9th grade instead. Pick your poison.)

Others I spoke to after the meeting heard this differently–that 8th graders opting for the earth and space science course would just take a single science course.

Stay tuned. Hopefully things will be clearer with flowcharts in hand.

*Find the NGSS performance standards for all grade levels, by DCI here.

Cell Phones and School Locker Rooms

Concerns about cell phones and locker rooms came up at a parent meeting at the beginning of the school year. Student handbooks for City HS (p. 6) and NWJH (p.19) have identical language prohibiting the use of cell phones in locker rooms:

Cell phones with cameras and other portable Handheld Technology Devices capable of storing and/or transmitting and/or receiving images are banned from use for any purpose in locker rooms and restrooms at ALL times. Students may be disciplined for any use of Handheld Technology Devices in school locker rooms or restrooms.

West HS (p.24) has nearly identical language:

Cell phones with cameras and other portable technology devices capable of storing and/or transmitting and/or receiving images are banned from use for any purpose in locker rooms and restrooms at all times. students may be disciplined for any use of technology devices in school locker rooms or restrooms.

Interestingly, SEJH and NCJH handbooks don’t seem to directly address cell phones and locker rooms. Here’s the NCJH handbook language on cell phones (p. 7) [note: the most recent handbook linked on the NCJH webpage is the 2015-16 version]:

Students are not permitted to use cell phones without teacher or administrator permission at any time between 8:00 AM and 3:10 PM. Cell phones must be shut off during this time period. We ask that parents not contact their students via their cell phones during the school day. This creates a disruption to the learning environment and may result in a school consequence for the student. North Central will not be responsible for lost or stolen phones.

Here’s the SEJH handbook language on cell phones (p. 14):


Students are allowed to use electronic devices before and after school and during their lunch period. All other times during the school day students should refrain from using their devices unless granted permission by a South East staff member. Staff will have the right to determine cell phone and electronic device policies and procedures that are appropriate for their classrooms. All students will abide by classroom policies. If there is inappropriate or unauthorized use, the device may be confiscated by staff, and may be held until a parent can retrieve the device. Any student who photographs someone else without their permission will be subject to disciplinary consequences and may have their phone confiscated by staff. Any student who videotapes a fight/disruption, or actively encourages inappropriate behaviors will be subject to disciplinary consequences up to suspension from school.

I haven’t thought through how similar student handbooks should generally be, but it seems to me that there should be a uniform and explicit districtwide policy prohibiting any use of cell phones in school locker rooms and restrooms.

Of course, policy is just the beginning. As one parent asked at the meeting, “can you enforce it?”

Is anyone else concerned about cell phones in locker rooms or at school generally? Are these policies enforceable and being adequately enforced at all secondary schools?

EdCampIowa 2016

Registration is open for EdCampIowa, scheduled for Saturday, February 13, 2016 in five locations around the state: Epworth, Cedar Rapids, Storm Lake, Council Bluffs, and Ames.

Students, parents, board members, policymakers, and community members are invited to attend. Registration is free.

Talking (Down) to Parents

The Iowa Reading Research Center has been tweeting more links to the IRRC blog lately. The blog seems aimed at driving parent traffic to the IRRC searchable collection of resources (which appear to all be links to other websites).

I suppose the blog is meant to be drawing attention to useful information parents might not otherwise find on their own. However, it is disingenuously presented as a parent-to-parent blog when the author is, in fact, a literacy consultant for the IRRC. And worse, the blog is largely written from a faux-clueless parent point of view.


I say faux-clueless because I refuse to even entertain the idea that a literacy consultant, for example, would need to learn that it is okay to ask questions at the library, is incapable of effectively using a library catalog to find books about robins, needs someone else to suggest the idea of pairing reading a book with watching a movie based on the book,  or needs reminders of the importance of talking to her baby.

I suppose that having paid for the creation of the resources collection, the IRRC needs to drive some traffic to it. But 1) how likely is it that parents who need to be told these things are actually following the IRRC’s blog, or the IRRC Twitter and Facebook accounts? (Maybe aiming at professionals who work directly with the parents most in need of the information the IRRC wants to share would be more productive.)

And 2) can’t the IRRC adopt a less condescending way to address parents? (See, for example, Dan Willingham’s Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do.)

Have Fun, Start Now

Have fun, start now are the guiding principles in Dan Willingham’s latest book, Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do.

Willingham focuses on three foundations of reading: decoding easily, comprehension, and motivation. These foundations are addressed by age groups, birth through preschool, kindergarten through second grade, and third grade and beyond. Willingham discusses what you might expect to be happening at school and what you can do at home. And, because it is Willingham, there are references to research, both what we already know and where further study could be helpful.

This book is aimed at helping you help your child to see the value and pleasure in reading for enjoyment or entertainment. Basically, kids who read have a self-concept of themselves as readers (“reading is one of the things that I do”) and Willingham offers suggestions for helping your child build that self-concept as well as positive encouragement (it’s never too late to start!).

Willingham also cautions about relying too much on your child’s school. From the Introduction:

If you want your child to value reading, schools can help, but you, the parent, have the greater influence and bear the greater responsibility. You can’t just talk about what a good idea reading is. Your child needs to observe that reading matters to you, that you live like a reader.

I found myself nodding along throughout much of this book, though there were two points at which I was stopped short. The first was at this passage, from Chapter Five:

I encourage you to be very cautious about providing reading instruction at home. There are studies showing that such teaching can help children learn to read, but in these studies, parents are trained in specific techniques by the researchers. If you’re not trained by researchers (or your child’s teacher), you’re either going to go with your gut instincts about how to teach (which is dicey) or you’ll choose one of the many products out there for parents to work on phonics with their kids. Many of these products are not sound in how they approach reading instruction, and most are terribly boring. (Emphasis in the original.)

I agree that many products (and advice) sold to parents may not be sound in how they approach reading instruction, but I am confident that that statement may too often be true with regard to materials (and advice) sold to schools as well. In other words, I’m less optimistic than Willingham that schools are mostly getting systematic phonics instruction right.

In addition, I think parents either trying to evaluate the quality of their child’s school’s reading instruction or listening to their child’s early efforts at decoding and offering effective corrective feedback may need to study up on systematic phonics instruction anyway, in which case, you’re most of the way to being prepared to teach reading to your own child (one-on-one). So while I might agree that there’s no reason to intervene if you are satisfied with your child’s reading instruction, I wouldn’t hesitate to intervene if I had concerns; just be careful who you take advice or purchase materials from.*

Case in point: here’s a portion of a literacy consultant’s blogpost, on the Iowa Reading Research Center website blog, highlighting a video, “Reading Solution: Don’t Give Me the Answer”, from the IRRC Family Resources page.

The video also shares that if a child is stuck on a word after a few tries, a parent can support the child by asking some questions. The parent in the video encourages the child to use the pictures in the book to see if the word makes sense. I decided to try this and it worked! Griffin stumbled on the word “tickets” in the sentence “Mom gets tickets.” I asked him to look at the mom and see what could be in her hand and to think about what they needed to get into the fair. Since he had figured out the first part “tic”, he was able to guess the rest of the word correctly. (Emphasis added.)

Let me suggest something different this parent could have said to her child instead. How about, “Griffin, each syllable in a word has a vowel sound. Let’s see if we can divide this word into syllables and try sounding it out again?” Having assisted Griffin in dividing “tickets” into two syllables (tick-ets), Griffin should have been able to sound out this word, not guess the word from the pictures (which, it should go without saying, won’t be a particularly good reading strategy in the long run).

The other passage that stopped me short was this one, from Chapter Six, following a discussion of the importance of broad general content knowledge:

In chapter 5, I encouraged you to count on your child’s teacher to get him reading, but when it comes to knowledge building, you can’t exhort the schools and hope for the best. This work will fall to you.

In this case, it wasn’t so much disagreement as discouragement about the general state of schools with regard to content knowledge that would cause Willingham to write this and what it means for local efforts to address the achievement gap. As we add more time to the elementary school day, I hope local school officials will take note that making time for building content knowledge (history, civics, science, art and more) is vital for supporting later reading comprehension (Chapter Six).

One other topic of particular interest to me is the role of electronic devices in reading and in schools. Willingham notes that it probably doesn’t matter if your child reads on an e-reader or not (Chapter Eight). However, in Chapter Eight, Willingham notes:

There is one qualification to that conclusion. If your child’s school is considering moving to electronic textbooks, be at least a little wary. Publishers are working to improve electronic textbooks, but with the current offerings, the research is pretty consistently negative.

Willingham discusses digital technology more extensively in Chapter Ten:

The consequence of long-term experience with digital technologies is not an inability to sustain attention. It’s impatience with boredom. It’s an expectation that I should always have something interesting to listen to, watch, or read and that creating an interesting experience should require little effort. . . . We’re not distractible. We just have a very low threshold for boredom.

But it’s not all bad news (e-readers can help make appealing reading material easily accessible) and Willingham offers a number of suggestions to encourage kids to choose to read.

All in all, a worthwhile and engaging read, and a book I’d like to see local teachers and school administrators find time to read.

*FWIW, I like the Montessori preschool writing to reading sequence of materials and activities. I also like Sound Steps to Reading (plus storybook) by Diane McGuinness.

ATF: Participating as a Parent

It can be time consuming to participate in education policy decision-making task forces, boards, or committees at the state or local level, but parents need to be heard. It is worthwhile to attend meetings, speak during public comment, write or call decision-makers, or write letters to the editors or guest opinions for the local paper. However, as I noted in an earlier post, there is something particularly rewarding–and empowering–about participating from a seat (with a vote!) at the table.

I don’t expect to have another opportunity to serve at the statewide or local level (not for lack of trying), so I encourage all parents to volunteer and take advantage of the opportunity to serve on committees working on education issues of great interest to you, if it is offered.

Parent voices, in my experience, are more often merely tolerated, rather than welcomed.* And a non-educator in a room full of educators is inescapably an outsider in some sense.** It isn’t necessarily easy to walk into–and speak up in–a group as an outsider, even less so, if you become aware there may be unresolvable differences of opinion.

Here are some things I found helpful to remember or to do:

Many education policy decisions are a matter of values, preferences, and priorities.

In the case of the assessment task force, we weren’t being asked to write accountability assessments, just evaluate and make recommendations about accountability assessments written by assessment professionals. If you are invited to serve as a parent representative, you are there to offer a non-educator parent perspective. If a group member, hypothetically, were to observe at the outset that all of the educators are also parents (implying, perhaps, that your presence and participation is superfluous) speak up anyway and without prefacing your comments with “I’m just a parent . . .” or “I’m not an expert, but . . .” These statements, in my opinion, signal that your opinions, comments, or questions don’t count as much as other group members’ opinions, comments, or questions.

Not needing to be an expert is different that not needing to be informed.

While it is important to review the agenda and read any materials distributed for discussion at meetings, this won’t be enough to inform your participation. Fortunately, the internet makes it easy to inform yourself. For the assessment task force, I found Twitter, education blogs, and subscriptions to both local papers and Education Week to be great sources of information. This takes time but makes active and productive participation possible.

Talk about the work of your group with non-group members.

As the internet can function as an echo chamber, so can a closed group. I found it helpful to talk to other parents and other educators, both to inform myself on issues and to get a sense of opinions held by non-group members about our task force work. As it became clear that I would be in a distinct minority on the task force with regard to Smarter Balanced assessments, it helped to know that I was not alone in my viewpoint in my larger community. If my view had been in line with the task force’s recommendation, it would have been equally reassuring to know that others in my larger community supported that too.

In short, my unsolicited advice to parents who have the opportunity to serve is this: do your homework and speak up without apology.

And for those of us parents not invited to the table? We have options for participating anyway: paying attention, showing up to meetings, speaking up during public comment, and writing about education issues–whether it be blogposts, letters to decision-makers, letters to the editor, or guest opinions.

*I have found some Iowa educators to be welcoming of parents on Twitter and blogs. In fact, EdCampIowa has specifically invited parents to participate. As of now, tickets are still available at all five locations (Cedar Falls, Iowa City, Cherokee, Council Bluffs, and Ankeny)  for January 31, 2015.

**I should note here that though I remained an outsider throughout our work, I enjoyed working with the other task force members; if I was unwelcome, they hid it well.